SUNBURY, Pa. - Clean Harbors Inc. senior vice president Scott Metzger pulled into the dirt lot of a once-abandoned factory yard here, past gleaming trucks painted with the Norwell, Mass., company's signature red, and opened the door to the environmental services firm's newest offices.
It is the third property Clean Harbors has opened or acquired in Pennsylvania in the past year, as the company rides the drilling boom that is unlocking natural gas and oil from shale deposits and increasing demand for its know-how in avoiding, reducing, and cleaning up environmental damage. Last year, work for the shale industry generated 25 percent of Clean Harbors' $2 billion in revenues, and that number is only expected to grow.
"We just see a tremendous market that needs all of the services we provide,'' said chief executive Alan McKim, who estimated his company's shale-related business is growing about 25 percent a year. "In the US, there's huge potential.''
Clean Harbors is just one example of how the unlocking of natural gas reserves hundreds of miles away promises to benefit Massachusetts companies and the state economy. At first glance, the abundant supplies in Northeast shale formations offer lower energy costs for businesses and consumers; Lexington forecasting firm IHS Global Insight estimates that lower natural gas prices will save households an average of $926 a year through 2015.
But as Clean Harbors also shows, booming gas production is providing a market for one of the state's main exports: expertise. Consulting, financial services, and even technology firms are finding new customers in the shale industry.
Progress Software Corp. in Bedford said it has experienced strong demand for software that analyzes sensor readings from drill bits and pipelines. Aspen Technology Inc. of Burlington, which sells software to manage production, processing, and transportation of natural gas, said business is so good that it is hiring recent college graduates with chemical engineering and computer science degrees to stay ahead of growing demand for its products.
Consulting firms such as Concentric Energy Advisors Inc. in Marlborough are seeing a jump in business as they advise energy companies on investments associated with US shale formations. Boston-based energy investment firm ArcLight Capital Partners, which employs about 60 in Boston and New York, has invested several billion dollars in gas pipelines, processing plants, and storage facilities to take advantage of the shale boom, adding about 20 jobs in recent years to help with that work, said firm cofounder Dan Revers.
"We saw this coming and ramped up for it,'' Revers said.
The boom began in earnest when gas producers began using a horizontal drilling technique combined with a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to get at large quantities of gas trapped in the shale formations. The practice has spurred fears that chemicals and other substances could leak during the drilling process, polluting the air and water.
Still, since 2000, shale gas production has skyrocketed from nearly nothing to about 34 percent of total US gas production currently, according to a recent study by IHS Global Insight.
A large portion of that work is happening in the Marcellus, a 95,000-square-mile shale formation that stretches across a half-dozen states, including nearly all of West Virginia, significant swaths of New York and Ohio, and much of Pennsylvania.
About 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, a yellow-tipped derrick that had already bored more than 6,000 feet into the earth drilled further into shale to find natural gas, emitting a steady, pulsing high-pitched whine as the drill maneuvered through a curved section of the well.
Once completed, it will join the 120 wells that Consol Energy Inc. in Canonsburg, Pa., already has producing gas on the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania. Nearly 1,000 businesses work in the state's core shale industry, and roughly 4,700 wells have drilled on the Marcellus since 2005, according to state data.
Last year, Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania alone produced just over 1 trillion cubic feet of gas, or about 4 percent of the natural gas consumed in the United States each year.
This has all helped push natural gas prices to their lowest level in about a decade. They have fallen in the past 12 months alone to about $2.35 per million British thermal units - equivalent to selling a barrel of oil for nearly $14, according to the US Energy Department. Oil closed at $91.66 a barrel in New York on Tuesday.
In Western Massachusetts, Onyx Specialty Papers Inc. in South Lee estimates it will cut its annual fuel costs in half when it completes a conversion from oil to natural gas this summer, helping to keep it competitive and maintain its workforce of 137. Onyx, which makes paper products used in automatic transmissions and laminate countertops, spends about $3 million a year on fuel oil for heating and steam.
"In our business, energy is our third largest operating expense,'' said Onyx co-owner Patricia Begrowicz. "What's going on in the natural gas market is really critical to our viability right now.''
Such benefits don't come without risks, however. Extracting gas from shale involves pumping thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water and sand into the shale, creating fissures that release natural gas into the well. Environmentalists, local officials, and nearby residents have worried that this drilling method and poorly built wells could pollute ground water and air.
John Deutch, an MIT professor who chaired a panel established by the Obama administration to find ways to reduce the environmental impact of shale gas drilling, said such concerns can't be ignored if the nation wants to benefit from the energy supply over the long term.
"More should be done in a concrete way to address water and the community impacts,'' Deutch said. "Otherwise there's a possibility that the public - and here I mean all sides of the public - will reach the conclusion that the environmental costs are too onerous, and it will threaten this great boom that we have.''
Clean Harbors makes its money by helping natural gas producers limit their impact on the environment, and cleaning up the problems that do occur.
Today, more than two dozen workers bustle around Clean Harbors' new offices and warehouse in Sunbury, where work trucks and trailers loaded with shovels, generators, containment booms, and other equipment stand ready to go to any one of Pennsylvania's numerous drilling sites.
Thirty minutes north, in Montgomery, Clean Harbors operates Peak Energy Services, a firm that supplies tanks, pumps, and centrifuges to drilling rigs and also processes and recycles the water used to bore wells. Up the road in South Williamsport, another team maintains the mapping technology and other equipment that Clean Harbors uses to survey drilling sites.
All this business on the Marcellus and other shale formations is flowing back to Clean Harbors' Massachusetts headquarters, said McKim, the chief executive. The company recently added a 35,000-square-foot building to its Norwell campus, and hired about 100 workers to handle data entry, billing, and customer service.
"Certainly,'' McKim said, "a lot of that [expansion] has a lot to do with growth in the oil and gas area.''